North Caucasian Insurgency Experiences Setbacks but Conditions for Political Violence Persist

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 195

Rustam Asilderov (Source: Caucasian Knot)

On December 4, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced the killing of Rustam Asilderov (a.k.a. amir Abu Muhammad Kadarsky) in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Government forces killed Asilderov along with four other insurgents in the Dagestani capital’s suburb of Talgi. Asilderov, 35, was the leader of the Islamic State’s branch in the North Caucasus, Velayat Kavkaz. He was among the first to defect from the homegrown North Caucasian rebel group, the Caucasus Emirate, to the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East in 2014. In 2015, Asilderov was appointed as the head of IS’s branch in the North Caucasus. Previously, in 2012, the then leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, appointed Asilderov to lead insurgency forces in Dagestan (TASS, December 4). As the Caucasus Emirate gradually went into a decline, the IS representatives took over. The existing groups of the Caucasus Emirate switched allegiances and started to fight under the “brand” of IS.

Initially, the government feared that the better supported IS fighters might pose a greater threat to stability in the North Caucasus (TASS, October 23, 2015). However, publicly available statistics indicate that the decline in rebel activities in the North Caucasus continued under IS as well. In 2014, overall 341 people were killed in insurgency-related violence in the region (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 31, 2015). In 2015, the numbers dropped to 209 killed individuals (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 8), which represented a 39 percent reduction of casualties. The difference in the number of killed government officials was even more striking. While in 2014, 55 government servicemen died in insurgency-related violence in the North Caucasus, in 2015, 18 government employees were killed— a 67 percent reduction of casualties among government officials. The insurgency still continues in the region to this day. Only in the third quarter of 2016, an estimated 47 people died in attacks across the North Caucasus (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 28), but the intensity of violence appears to have been decreasing in the past several years.

What is next for the North Caucasian insurgency? Neither the Caucasus Emirate nor Islamic State appears to hold onto the region, with both of them losing their leaders in fighting with authorities. Islamic State in the Middle East is shrinking and is considered to be on the defensive most of the time, which means it is unlikely to have resources to support its branch in the North Caucasus. The Caucasus Emirate is also quite disorganized and nearly non-existent, as its leadership was decimated in the past several years after Doku Umarov’s death in 2013.

Internal instructions in the form of “advice” to the Ingush jamaat may provide a glimpse on how the insurgency will evolve in the North Caucasus in the nearest future. An anonymous author writes about the “very complicated situation in the Velayat Galgayche [Ingushetia]” as well as elsewhere in the Caucasus Emirate. To deal with the difficulties the insurgents are encountering, the author calls on the remaining rebels not to divide themselves into supporters of Islamic State and the Caucasus Emirate. According to the author, the Islamic State forces should not expect a quick victory and should not be in a hurry to kill as many enemies as possible. Instead, the instructor of insurgents suggests that the rebel groups should be minimized in scope, numbering no more than four individuals. Moreover, rebel cells should avoid looking for contacts with each other, because that would put them in jeopardy. Also, the author calls on his audience to be realistic about their targets and means of attacking them. The author asks to avoid grandiose plans, but rather engage in “actions that demonstrate to the public the presence of Mujahedeen and cause anxiety, nervousness and a feeling of constant threat and danger by the enemies.” The instructions conclude by saying that if the would-be rebel is not prepared for the hardships of rebel life and years of “work” then it is better for him or her to engage in some other activities (, November 20).

The letter to potential militants in Ingushetia along with the killing of Islamic State’s leader in Dagestan indicate that the insurgency in the region is in a deep crisis. Hence, the call to stop internal divisions even though the author makes it clear that he/she is not a supporter of IS. The networks of insurgents are apparently under constant threat of being discovered by government agents, which prompts them to reduce their cell sizes and expect to “work” for years rather than achieving a quick victory.

The instructor of insurgents in Ingushetia indicates that the insurgency in the North Caucasus is in decline, but also that it is likely to change. As the cells become more autonomous units, it will be harder for them to organize large-scale attacks, but they will also become harder to discover. While the scope of attacks becomes smaller, their unpredictability will likely increase.

Despite the reduction in the number of attacks and casualties in the North Caucasus, the underlying causes of violence, such as growing economic inequality and lack of political representation, have remained in place and may even become more salient in the next few years. The stagnating political regime in Russia is likely to have especially grave repercussions for the repressed minority regions, such as the North Caucasus. For example, among the latest initiatives of the Dagestani authorities, there is monitoring of children in schools through polls and discussions (Kavkazskaya Politika, December 9). The authorities in Dagestan and Russia in general appear to rely on the Bolshevik logic of “finalizing” the defeat of Islamists. Hence, they are unlikely to stop even if no terrorist threat exists, but will continue to try to efface first the unwanted Islamic teachings, and then Islam as such. Unlike the original Bolsheviks, however, their current followers in Russia have no ideology to offer to the various ethnicities in the North Caucasus, apart from Russian nationalism. This means that violence in the region is likely to perpetuate, although its intensity might decrease further over time.